Changing our stories

Until The First World War there was the “big story” of the church and the establishment. Everything was in God’s ordained order and those in power could be trusted. Darwin and the trenches blew a hole in that story. This was then replaced by two other big stories, Communism and Fascism, meeting mankind’s need for a replacement for the God/Establishment story. The Second World War put a dent in these two stories which were largely replaced by Materialism, the “buy stuff ’till you die” story, which is beginning to look a bit frayed at the edges. 

Do we need another big story? Is it inevitable that we need single sense making stories? Don’t these invariably put power in the small group who tell the stories? Isn’t this where we are currently with the media and politics? Small groups controlling our sense making stories and having disproportionate impact on how we understand and react to our circumstances. 

What if we became less lazy and less willing to accept the stories fed to us? What if we noticed more and thought more? What if we all made sense of the world with our own stories? What if we told these stories online and shared them better and faster than ever before? 

Could we become a collective sense making network that removes the ability for small groups to abuse gatekeeping power? Could we work out how to work together to solve the complex problems that we are increasingly aware are inevitably shared? Could we do this with enough tolerance and compassion to avoid falling out with each other?

17 thoughts on “Changing our stories

  1. I’ve pondered similar questions. Where I get to is that people seem to seek or need some shared experience(s) or belief(s) or other instantiating happening (e.g aid/relief concerts, occupy movements, gun control national conversations) from which and around which to create some collective sense, and thereby back to the question you pose ? Can anything collective, meaningful, useful on a very large and wide scale come from myriad fragmented shared experiences. How big does a potential shared experience / belief / question have to be to tip what emerges over into some degree of collective generation and responsibility ?


    1. I guess, in part along with my response to Andy, is that time will tell. Like you I constantly work away at how to intervene in ways to make productive outcomes more likely without screwing things. How do you make things happen when making things happen is the problem.


  2. Your last paragraph is a nice thought, Euan and I’d love there to be a simple (or relatively simple) way do that. However, my experience of involvement in online groups and from the comments streams of the national newspapers and online magazines is that, unmoderated, groups tend to split apart into entrenchment of opposing positions. Actually, having two opposing opinions might be tenable. What seems to happen, though, is that there is a splintering as off topic comments arrive, trolls muddy the waters and people engage in personal feuds. Maybe we have to change human nature before we can change the way we make decisions. We seem to have a default setting of aggression or passive aggression that sets the tone.

    I would love there to be a more hopeful conclusion but I suspect there is not.



    1. My, possibly naïve, response to your understandable concern Andy is that we are still very immature in using the powerful tool at our disposal and that with the right help we should grow out of some of our currently teenage antics.


    2. If you look at what the Russian Anarchists attempted to undertake at the end of the 19th Century or the Japanese people at the same time you can see brief periods when the collective will of the people was better than the rule of the unelected. But they were dealing with local issues and simple data points. On a global level I fear that we face a wave of stupidity akin to Lord Lawson and Climate Change.

      I would happily debated that more has been achieved by removing the masses from the decision making process rather than adding them to it.


      1. I’ve read some Kropotkin and know the period you are referring to. Yes they were dealing with local issues and simple data points but they didn’t have the networked communication tools we now have.

        That bit about removing masses from decision making has surely only short term expediency?


      2. If you look at the development of Empires such as the Japanese, Chinese, Raj, Roman and Mughal they seemed to maintain society and control for a significant period of time. Economic Mobility can be debated but less democracy seems to work better for the masses than more.

        Kropotkin is an interesting man but his views were formed from the study of Bees and Ants which we now know to be far from Anarchist. I am becoming quite interested in the mass riots in Japanese Cities at the end of the 19th Century as they might tell us a great deal about what might happen as the Western Capitalist Model fails. The story has not spread far out of Japan and at the moment my ability to read script from the time is very limited.


  3. Umberto Eco wrote a paper alongside his recent book called inventing the enemy. His essays include indignat reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses by fascist journalists of the 1920s and 1930s, censorship, violence and Wikileaks.

    If we look at the Church at the time of the Nepoleonic Wars we had two sides fighting for the right of God in the form of the Church of England against the Church of Rome. As an Economist I would say that the NHS suffers from demand being to high for services and so price needs to rise to balance the system. The price element can be seen as increased mortality, at this moment in time I am happy to see infant mortality rise but would be concerned if it were cancer or heart attacks that saw the rise, soon I would like to see an improvement in old age care because they effect me. The problem is that my view on price is an individual one rather than collective and thus biased.

    In her excellent Radio4 series Marina Warner looks at the way that many have changed the emphasis and thus meaning of the Grimm Fairy Tales and the change of empathise over time dependent on who is in power. The original Repunzel is a tale about the failure to teach young girls about the consequences of sex as she is thrown out by the witch and rejected by the young prince and thus left to raise twins alone in the woods.

    The days of less media meant that it was harder to manage news, now in the age of mass media we tend to seek only the point of view that confirms and reinforces our own. Just look at the shock of the Fox News team when they discover that they face four more years of a black man running America.

    I fear that we face a mass dumbing down rather than a collective sense making network. One just has to look at the commercial success of Katie Price, Kim Kardashian, TOWIE to realise that rather than thinking we have stopped to question anything.

    The other problem is some of us are more than happy to be outside the club rather than in it. Guess is a feet are OK we could debate this matter at length over a walk on the Ashridge Estate.


    1. I’d love to – feet much improved!

      Love the fairy tales changing in meaning over time.

      When thinking about this stuff I keep hearing the disparaging phrase "relativistic mush" ringing in my ears and then find myself thinking "and is that such a bad thing?"

      As to the fear of dumbing down isn’t that up to us individually and collectively? Isn’t it a little like my answer to Andy that we are currently in a teenage phase – certainly in terms of our new toy the internet, possibly even in terms of our time on the planet – and we have it in our power to decide to grow up?


      1. One just has to look at the Ladies who Lunch in Old Amersham to see that we seem to prefer to remain in our teenage years rather than grow up. Looking at the process factory that is today’s education system you have to fear that me are raising dull worker ants rather than those capable of creative reasoned thinking. Perhaps we need a return to Trivium and then we might have a population capable of critical thinking?


      2. It’s probably not a good sign that I had to look up Trivium!! But then I take comfort in the fact that the Wikipedia page that explained it did a rather good job…


      3. You are never far from the writing of Marshall McLuhan when thinking about the internet 😉

        The debate has to be why did it end with Thomas Nashe.


  4. second sentence "hole", not "whole."

    And the next story, I fear, is going to be one of (unsuccessfully) avoiding the blame from the young folk of today for the messes – the ramifying and concatenating messes that we are making of this planet.


  5. Your .. "How do you make things happen when making things happen is the problem."

    Brilliantly said, and the heart of the conundrum imo.


  6. Interesting article. I agree that we need to agree the basis on which we are arguing any case, and clear about which we are actually arguing. Can you say more though about what you mean by "obstacles"?


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